Did you watch the MTV Video Music Awards this year? Well if you missed it, Stephanie Medley-Rath brings you up to speed on Miley Cyrus’ cure for youth homelessness, which she unveiled at the VMA.
Once again, Miley Cyrus steals the VMA spotlight by pulling a stunt of some sort. This year, she had 22-year-old homeless man, Jesse Helt to accept her award to raise awareness for homeless youth living in Los Angeles. He prompted viewers to visit Cyrus’facebook page so that they, too, could donate to My Friend’s Place, an LA shelter serving homeless youth ane presumbly to educate themself on the issue.
I visited Cyrus’ website to learn more about her campaign and noticed that her campaign message begins:
- “Just a few miles from where I live in Los Angeles, there are young people living on the street who come to this city with big dreams just like all of us.”
The implication is that these are young people who moved to L.A. to achieve their dreams rather than that they are from L.A. to begin with or are homeless for reasons that have little to do with seeking Hollywood-fame. The allure of Hollywood and celebrity is strong and Cyrus’ words are an attempt to get people to empathize because they (i.e., homeless youth) are “just like all of us” (i.e., the non-homeless).
There are many reasons people (of all ages) are homeless. Common reasons for youth homelessness include:
- Mental Illness
- Being pushed out of their home due to violence, abuse, pregnancy, or sexual orientation
- Aging out of the foster care system
None of these reasons include moving to Hollywood to achieve “big dreams.” Youth are not homeless because they have failed to achieve these dreams or have chosen homelessness as a means of achieving these dreams.
Her message closes with:
- “This campaign is about helping homeless youth have opportunity to find their inner power and potential – no matter what their circumstances.”
She is reinforcing the message that homelessness is an individual problem. If only homeless youth could find “their inner power and potential” then they would no longer be homeless.
As an aspiring sociologist, I hope you’re thinking, “but what about the social structure?” And I’d agree. What about that social structure?
How Poverty is Created by Social Structure
Let’s examine unemployment in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles County’s overall unemployment rate is 8.2%. Los Angeles also has one of the highest unemployment rates for youth in the nation. For 16 to 19-year-olds, the unemployment rate is 83.3% (ranked 5 out of 100 in the nation). For 20 to 24-year-olds, the unemployment rate is 42.5% (ranked 17 out of 100 in the nation). Compared to the rest of the nation, Los Angeles is not the city to head to as an unemployed youth looking for work. You would be better-off heading to Provo-Orem, Utah.
If you are a young person in L.A. who has secured employment, now you need to secure housing.
Los Angeles lacks affordable housing. The rent for a one-bedroom apartment ranges from $860/month to $2,540/month in Los Angeles. Further, the cost of rents increased by 10% from 2012-2013. Assuming they went up another 10%, that means the rental range is $946 to $2,794. If your job is the average distance (in L.A.) from where you actually live, then you can expect a commute time of about 30 minutes each way (so you’ll also need a car).
Now, back to that job. As a young person with perhaps a high school diploma and some college credits (maybe even a Bachelor’s degree), what wages might you earn? Let’s take a look at the minimum you could expect to earn.
Minimum wage in Los Angeles is $9.00/hour. We’ll be optimistic and assume that a young person between the ages of 16 and 24 can pull together ennough part-time jobs to work a full 40-hour week. Before taxes, you would earn $360/week or $1,440/month. If you move into the least expensive apartment, you would have $580 leftover to cover all other expenses (visit Poverty USA to see how far minimum wage goes for a family for some context). If rents increased in 2014 by the same rate they did in 2013, then you only have $494 left to pay for food, utilities, transportation, and other expenses each month.
High youth unemployment + expensive housing + low minimum wage + Hollywood dreams = Youth homelessness
I don’t know why each and every person is homeless. Some are homeless by choice. Some are homeless by chance. Some are homeless due to a whole host of reasons including some of which have been mentioned in this post.
What I do know is that treating youth homelessness as an individual problem that be can solved by helping them achieve “their inner power and potential” does not nothing to address the structural issues of youth unemployment, lack of affordable housing, or low wages. Moreover, emphasizing that these youth are homeless who moved to L.A. with big dreams glosses over the realities of these youth’s lives. It does nothing to address the real problems of addiction, abuse, violence, mental illness, homophobia, poverty, among other problems that many of these youth are fleeing. Cyrus admits that donating money to My Friend’s Place is only the starting point. I hope she’s right. Time will tell if Cyrus uses her fame to address the structural issues surrounding homelessness or limits her campaign to indivualized solutions that do nothing to prevent homelessness in the first place.
- What is the difference between structure and agency?
- Identify and explain at least two structural reasons for homelessness. Are these reasons for youth homelessness, adult homelessness, or both?
- Research the homeless rate in your community or nearest city. If you can not find this information online, contact a homeless shelter in your community (check the web before calling for the answers to your questions). How many homeless people are in your community? What types of people are homeless (i.e., single people, families, men, women, Veterans, LGBT) in your community?
- Pick one of the reasons for youth homelessness listed above. Research that problem’s relationship with homelessness. How many youth are homeless because they were kicked out their home due to their sexual orientation, for example? Draft a policy that a government (e.g., city, state, or federal) could implement to address youth homelessness related to the problem you selected.
- Who is Homeless?
- Hobos, Hustlers, and Backsliders: Homeless in San Francisco
- Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard